by: Michael Kabel
Acid reflux, known in medical terminology as Gastro Esophageal Reflux or GER, is a painful condition that affects untold millions of Americans each year. The pain and discomfort associated with its heartburn and other symptoms are especially common in pregnant women, as well.
Frequent GER – more than two episodes a week – is considered the more serious Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). If left untreated, its symptoms can permanently alter some tissues within the airways and even lead to bleeding ulcers. Fortunately, some simple changes to lifestyle, including eating and sleeping habits, are believed to provide immediate relief from symptoms – and may even reverse damages.
How acid reflux works.
Acid reflux happens when a specific muscle valve that separates the esophagus from the stomach fails to close completely or spontaneously opens. This Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES) allows stomach contents and gasses to flow from the stomach into the esophagus and even the back of the throat. While there is no known cause, some research points to an otherwise benign defect known as a hiatal hernia, in which the LES and the stomach's upper part brush against or rise above the diaphragm - the muscle that separates the stomach and chest.
Patients with this LES malfunction most often experience a burning, gassy sensation beneath the breastbone - the condition commonly known as heartburn. Other symptoms can include a dry cough, a rasping voice, nausea, and inflammation of the sinus tissues. The discomfort may continue for days or even weeks if left untreated.
Making a diagnosis
Doctors arrive at a diagnosis by evaluating the patient's diet and lifestyle regimens. They may also prescribe some anti-GER medication, such as H2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors, to see if symptoms clear up. If the symptoms indeed disappear when treated with medication, the doctors will likely diagnose GER or GERD.
Besides the drugs described above, doctors may call for several different kinds of procedures:
- An endoscopy procedure extends a small camera down the patient's esophagus, to determine the extent of acid reflux damage.
- An Upper Gastrointestinal Series or "upper GI series" takes X-ray pictures of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum.
- Used in the most severe cases, Fundoplication surgery wraps the stomach around the LES, strengthening its ability to close. Modern procedures are done with a minimum of invasion to the body.
Treatments beyond medication
Some acid reflux sufferers have reported easing of symptoms by raising the head of their bed six inches off the floor while sleeping. Adding extra pillows isn't enough – the entire bed should be lifted. Others reported experiencing relief simply by sleeping on the left sides of their bodies.
Other research recommends adult sufferers not eat less than two hours before bedtime, to give the stomach time to digest its contents. Adults should also avoid fatty milk, fried foods, cruciferous vegetables, and smoking.
Acid reflux and pregnant women
Pregnant women routinely experience acid reflux symptoms, as their digestive tracts shift and make room to accommodate the growing wombs inside them. In most cases symptoms disappear soon after delivery.
Expectant mothers should take nothing stronger than over the counter antacids for treating symptoms without first consulting their doctor.